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The Value of Conversations With Employees
Business Journal

The Value of Conversations With Employees

by Jessica Tyler

"How are you?"

At the start of every shift, LOFT Store Manager Gale Ford asks her store associates that simple question. It seems like an offhand courtesy or something not particularly significant. It certainly doesn't seem like a key element of great managing.

Fancy action plans don't create engagement; ongoing two-way dialogue creates engagement.

But Ford has reasons for asking that question. For one thing, the answer tells her the emotional temperature of each associate, and that can be very useful. "Managers don't see associates every day," Ford says. "Maybe there's something going on in their lives that we should know about."

There's another reason. "A 'chat-in' for each associate when they first come in is our opportunity as managers to show our associates we care about them," says Ford. "And they can tell we care because we listen to their answer."

That second reason -- "to show we care" -- actually is a principle of great managing. Caring is one of the elements Gallup has identified that predicts employee and workgroup performance and that links powerfully to crucial business outcomes, including productivity and profitability. Employee engagement is based on an employee feeling that she matters, that she contributes, and that the people she works for and with value her as a person and an employee.

Engaged workers are capable of exceptional performance, so managers who successfully engage employees in their workgroups are vital to their organizations' success. Ford is on the right track with her question because it shows she cares. But it also invites her workers into a meaningful conversation -- the kind that brings engagement to life.

Talk it out

Caring is one element of engagement, and there are 11 more. Gallup assesses the engagement level of a workforce by measuring the extent to which 12 key conditions exist in the workplace. Employees indicate the areas in which engagement is strong or lacking, and the results provide a guide for teams to improve engagement.

To boost engagement in a workgroup, however, managers can't simply treat these 12 elements like a checklist. In many companies that actively manage engagement, managers are encouraged or required to schedule meetings with their employees to discuss the group's engagement and to create strategies to improve the workplace. But when workgroups treat these interactions as a mere checklist review, engagement doesn't necessarily improve. "Fancy action plans don't create engagement; ongoing two-way dialogue creates engagement," says Kurt Deneen, a Gallup consultant. "Managers need to listen to their employees, not just talk at their team. Managers create a sense of engagement through conversation."

Of course, managers don't have to schedule a formal meeting to talk with employees. They can look for and think about the day-to-day things that affect engagement, then talk with employees about them. As Tom Rath noted in How Full Is Your Bucket?, "The results of our encounters are rarely neutral; they are almost always positive or negative. And although we take these interactions for granted, they accumulate and profoundly affect our lives." Great managers know this and see every interaction as an opportunity to engage.

The best way to do that is to meld conversations about engagement into the culture -- to marry talk about engagement to the work itself. Asking questions like "What are we trying to accomplish today?" or "Do we have what we need to accomplish our goals?" or "Are we all contributing in a way that is most efficient or effective or both?" in a meeting with employees brings to light key elements, such as expectations, materials, recognition, or development.

This kind of dialogue keeps the conditions of engagement related to the work and goals. "What's in front of us is the task at hand, and that's what we need to talk about," says Deneen. "Engagement isn't something managers manage to. It's the way great managers manage."

Topics of conversation

A good example of how a manager can maintain a "listening post" for engagement conversations comes from Susan DeProfio, an Ann Taylor store manager. DeProfio has a remarkably useful method for sparking meaningful conversations that really matter to her associates -- and her store.

One way that ANN, Inc. -- the parent company of Ann Taylor and LOFT stores --measures success is through a set of metrics that evaluates progress toward goals. DeProfio keeps the metrics in a loose-leaf binder under the cash register and circles numbers that are relevant for each associate.

"Our associates look through [the binder] when they have a minute, and it shows them exactly how they've done, what they've done, and how it compares to other stores," she says. "But it also shows me what they need. I can tell from the numbers where we've got a gap, and that helps me fill it." Those gaps tell her a lot about whether or not her associates have the materials they need, if her people are learning and growing, and if they feel they're progressing.

DeProfio doesn't get all her conversation ideas from a loose-leaf binder, of course. But her method is an innovative way to make conversations meaningful -- and focused on elements that create engagement.

"Our people have to feel they make a difference," DeProfio says. "They could probably make fifty cents an hour more with fewer responsibilities at a big box store down the street. So I need to communicate that I care about them, I need to connect them to Ann Taylor, [and] I need to make sure they know they're important to me and to the company."

Nothing managers talk about will affect engagement if they don't listen to what associates tell them.

What DeProfio has discovered, just as many other great managers have, is that elements of engagement can provoke the best kinds of conversations. Of course, nothing a manager talks about will have any effect on engagement if managers don't listen to what associates tell them. "I listen for 'engagement bells' all day long," Ford says. "We're a community; we're talking and giving feedback constantly. The only way [this works] is if I'm listening to what they're saying."

Strengthening engagement

When managers get their team's engagement report, most of them look at the overall numbers first because those results show the broad picture of a team's engagement. Then they focus on results for the individual engagement items. "Think about what the results say about the team culture," says Deneen. "If the results show that the team has low scores on the item 'my opinion counts,' there's likely a problem with communication. When that happens, the employee feedback program needs to be leveraged, and people need to be heard. If your workgroup's score on the 'mission and purpose' item is low, you need to consider if you're helping employees see how their work relates to the goals of the company or -- in retail -- to the goals of the store."

Each of the elements matter, and they are all interrelated. For example, Gallup has discovered that when teams focus on improving recognition or boosting opportunities for learning and growing, strong workplace friendships are more likely. The same research showed that leveraging employee strengths is the biggest predictor of improved clarity in expectations and that this is strongly related to an employee's connection to the organization's mission and purpose.

Clear expectations and connection to mission have a profound impact on engagement and efficiency. So how do managers know employees' strengths, gauge their sense of connection, and know if they understand what's expected of them? They talk with them.

DeProfio is so good at this that if there isn't a role in the store that captures an associate's strengths, she invents one. "One of my associates is really good at creating parties and event planning, so I made up a title for her, 'Hostess of Parties.' Look for where your people have the most 'glow' -- there's always something people lean toward." By giving her associate a special role in planning the store's customer promotional events, DeProfio gives her an opportunity to shine while encouraging additional business at her store.

Strengths-based organizations -- companies that scientifically assess their employees' talents and match those talents to job roles -- tend to perform very well. Looking for opportunities for employees to use their strengths is essentially what DeProfio is doing when she looks for "glow." ANN, Inc. approaches this on a systematic, companywide scale, with an end goal of boosting associate and organizational performance.

When managers pay attention to employee strengths, they subtly mesh engagement with real life -- which also goes a long way toward eradicating disengagement, Gallup has found. If a manager focuses on an employee's weaknesses, for example, that employee's chances of being actively disengaged are about 2 in 10. If a manager ignores an employee, those chances double to 4 in 10. But if a manager focuses on an employee's strengths, the chances that employee will be actively disengaged go down to 1 in 100.

Focusing on Strengths Reduces Disengagement

Consider: DeProfio's Hostess of Parties gets to do what she enjoys most when she puts customer promotional events together. But just being asked to do it shows that her boss cares about her, that she's seen as an individual, and that her development is important to her company. These are all conditions of engagement. And they're a very important -- and fun -- part of the conversation DeProfio has with her employees every day.

Walking the talk

When meaningful conversations are part of the way an organization manages, work cultures change. Yes, engagement plans and strategies are necessary, and following through on them is predictive of stronger engagement in the future. But action doesn't have to wait for a planning session. Great managers who have meaningful ongoing discussions with their employees also take ongoing action based on what they hear in those everyday conversations. They ask good questions, including disarmingly simple ones, and they pay close attention to the responses. They keep the wheels of engagement turning all the time, just by talking.

"Ask questions and listen closely," DeProfio says. "They say business isn't personal, but it is."


Jessica Tyler is a former Practice Leader, Employee Engagement and Well-Being, at Gallup.

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